Being a Descendant, Becoming an Ancestor


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 23, 2022

Listen more often to things than to beings,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath
when the fire’s voice is heard,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath
in the voice of the waters.

The words come from the Senegalese poet Birago Diop. The music is from Ysaye Barnwell. She is the renowned singer and former member of the well-known a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. She started her musical career as the founder of the Jubilee Singers. It is a choir in the African American tradition at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC.

Listen more often to things than to beings …
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath

This is not a sermon about Diop or Barnwell or All Souls, though they all belong, in some sense, to that great cloud of witnesses that make up its inspiration. No, this is a sermon about placing ourselves in time. It is a sermon in which I remind you that we each only exist because of our ancestors. And it is a sermon in which I invite you to recollect that someday, even if you do not have children, you too will be an ancestor. In truth, there is little more to this sermon than these lines from the French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

In a house which becomes a home,
one hands down and another takes up
the heritage of mind and heart,
laughter and tears, musings and deeds.

Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead have a pact with the living.

Some of you might know that since February, along with my girlfriend Sadé, I have been a non-resident Community Stories Fellow with the Crossroads Project, a collaborative research initiative housed at Princeton University. In the last months, we have been organizing an effort called Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community. I imagine that some of you are familiar with it. We are investigating the connection between religious practice, particularly non-Christian religious practice, and grassroots Black politics.

As part of the project, we are conducting a series of ten public oral histories with elders connected to the city’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth Ward communities. Half of these are taking place at institutions like Texas Southern University and Mt. Horeb Baptist Church. The other half are being held here, in our sanctuary. Last week, we interviewed Charlotte Hill O’Neal. She is a veteran of the Black Panther Party and the wife of Pete O’Neal, one of the last Panthers still living in exile. Next month, we will be speaking with Bishop Kimathi and Rev. Nailah Nelson of the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church at the Shrine of the Black Madonna.

The conversations have been powerful. If you have missed them, you can find most of them, and some supplementary materials, on our YouTube channel.

Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead are not under the earth.

In the last several months, we have interviewed: John “Bunchy” Crear, a pillar of the Black Panther Party alumni network; Baba Ifalade, an Ifa and New Orleans Voodoo priest; Gladys House-El, a civil rights activist, fifth generation resident of Freedman’s Town, and Moorish American; Pastor Samuel H. Smith, Sr., who at 94 still serves as the Senior Minister of the Mt. Horeb Baptist Church; and Charlotte Hill O’Neal.

It is a varied group. We have learned from our dialogues with its members. We have heard an account of the death of Carl Hampton at the site where he was killed, just by the intersection of Emancipation and Mchillenny. He was the founder of the Houston chapter of the Panthers. His life was ended by police bullets.

We have been to an Ifa divination and been instructed in how to offer sacrifices to the orisa, the deities of Yoruba, Santería, Hoodoo, and Voodoo. We have walked Freedman’s Town and seen the places where the brick streets are laid out in traditional African patterns. We have heard stories about organizing the Panthers’ breakfast program, how they fed children when no one else could or would take on that responsibility, and why their social service prompted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to claim that they represented “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

Across all these stories a common theme has emerged. Everyone has engaged in some form of ancestor worship. They have offered respect and gratitude for those who have gone before, for those without whom they would not be. Christian pastor, Ifa priest, or Panther veteran, each person we have interviewed has spoken with us about the importance of the ancestors.

Baba Ifalade eloquently broke it down for us. It is possible that a few of you recall his words. You might have been here when he spoke them. You may have listened to our recording. Or you could recollect that I included them in a sermon last May.

If they are familiar, they are worth hearing again. And, if not, I invite you to listen closely. Sadé asked Baba about ancestor worship. He responded, “our ancestors are our connection to the spiritual world.” And then he expanded on the practice. People, he said to us, are calling up ancestors, calling up spirits, all the time. His words:

“You are calling up spirits when you say the name Houston. ‘cause it is Sam’s last name. You are calling up spirits when you say Austin, ‘cause that was Stephen’s last name. You are calling up spirits when you look at the money and realize that the images are people, not objects but people. Their names are … featured there so you … [do not] forget who they are … There is ancestor worship going on around you constantly. … You are the beginning of your own descendants but you are the sum total of your ancestors.”

They are in the rustling trees,
they are in the groaning woods,
they are in the crying grass,
they are in the moaning rocks.

I want to pause here and offer you the opportunity to think about your ancestors. There are people, and beings, to whom each of us owe our existence. All life is related. All life has a common ancestor. When we think of our ancestors we need not just think of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, on through the generations. We might also consider the profound mystery that is life and the awesome wonder that is evolution.

“We are made of star-stuff,” Carl Sagan told us. Imagine your ancestral tree. It began in Africa. Some millions of years ago, the first humans came to consciousness someplace in Africa, children of the first African woman. Before that we were something like chimpanzees, and before that, similar to a monkey, and before that a small four legged terrestrial mammal, and before that… Drifting back in time far enough we will find our ancestors including reptiles, some kind of bony fish bridging the land and the sea, invertebrates, and, even, single cell organisms.

All life is related. All life shares common ancestry. Every person in this room a distant cousin. Every person on the planet part of the same great family of all souls. All of us descended from a long dead celestial orb that burned itself out, burned bright, and in its nuclear death brought into being our own day star and the solar system’s matter.

We Unitarian Universalists promote the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Worth and dignity, the interdependent web, these are ways of restating the reality that we are all related, we each come from common ancestors, and made of the stuff of the same star.

The Santee Dakota poet and political activist John Trudell pushed us to remember this in many of his writings and performances. More than twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing him at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. There he said words that have stayed with me and challenged me to remember who I am, and who you are, and how we are grounded on this terrestrial sphere upon which our feet are now planted. He said, “We are shapes of the Earth. That is exactly who we are. We are made of the Earth. We come out of the Earth.”

Our ancestors are not just the long dead animals from which we are descended. They include the very stuff of the planet, the energy that comes from the sun, the water we drink, the soil–itself a composition of proceeding generations–and the rocks and the … the all there is. We are but an extension of all being, the universe itself, with consciousness flowering in this moment and casting reflections of the shimmering stars and still stones with the words that fall from our tongues. Think upon that as you move through this world. When you respect this muddy planet, you are respecting yourself. And when you disrespect it….
They are in the woman’s breast,
they are in the wailing child,
they are with us in our homes,
they are with us in this crowd.

Last weekend, Sadé and I found ourselves at the twentieth-fifth Caravan to the Ancestors. Held each year on Galveston Beach, near where the ships used to bring enslaved people to the continent, it brings together much of the Pan-African community. Participants dress in white, pour libations for the ancestors, drum, dance, pray… After many hours of song and spirit, the event culminates when everyone walks through the Door of Return and makes an offering to the sea in the hopes of gaining a blessing.

The Door of Return is meant to be the opposite of the Door of No Return. The Door of No Return, you might be familiar with the phrase. The Door of No Return, or more accurately doors, were the doors that people were forced through when they taken from Africa onto the slave ships. It sundered cultures, rended families, cleave communities, and marked the passage from freedom to unfreedom.

The Door of Return symbolically makes all of that whole. It reunites those who walk through it with their ancestors and their cultural heritage. It is an instance of Sankofa, the practice of looking to the past to inform the future inspired by the Akan people of Ghana.

Sankofa … I am a person primarily of European descent. The vast majority of my ancestors left the African continent long before the slave trade forcibly brought enslaved people to Galveston. I doubt that any of my ancestors were on the ships that came into that bay.

Yet, standing on Galveston Beach, my sandled feet in the hot sand, the sun bright, the drums, the steady rhythm of the waves, the odd bird diving down into the water, the Pleasure Pier–stuffed with last century’s gaudy amusements–off in the distance, I could not help but think of my ancestors.

I remembered my grandparents–Dolores, George, Lorraine, and Morrie–all gone. I recalled mentors and teachers who are no longer here–Carlos Cortez, Penny Pixler, Federico Arcos, U. Utah Philips, Dick and June Kraus, Kay Jorgensen, it is good to say their names. I thought of the creators of beauty, the strugglers for justice, the seekers of wisdom who I never met but whose life and work has inspired me: Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Emma Goldman, John Trudell, Nina Simone, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, A. Philip Randolph, Grace Lee Boggs, Kenneth Rexroth, Tina Modotti, Ben Fletcher, Margaret Bourke-White, the list seems infinitely long.

Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead have a pact with the living.

I could not help but think of my ancestors. As a person primarily of European descent, which is to say that most of my ancestors left Africa millennia ago, I thought of their complicity in slavery and white supremacy. As far as I know, none of my antecedents were directly involved in chattel slavery or the slave trade. I am Yankee and much of my family arrived on this continent in the later half of the nineteenth-century, after the end of the Civil War. Those that did not settled in places like Iowa rather than those such as Texas.

But some of them definitely participated in the genocide of the indigenous peoples. I know this because on my mother’s side I am related to the infamous Buffalo Bill Cody. I cannot remember exactly how but when I was a child there was still some sort of dispute going on between some of my elderly relatives over who could actually lay claim to his guns and pocket watch.

There is a football team named after Buffalo Bill. He fought in the Plains Wars during which the federal government brutally sought to steal the land of and subjugate the nations of the Great Plains. He gained his nickname from slaughtering some 4,000 bison over an eighteen month period. It was part of a strategy to eliminate the indigenous people’s food supply and starve them into submission.

Certainly, he is not someone who I am proud to be connected to–even if he was a great grandmother’s cousin rather than a direct ancestor. Surely, his actions are characteristic of that generation of my mother’s family. Other relatives of mine certainly engaged in similar genocidal activities.

“You are the beginning of your own descendants but you are the sum total of your ancestors,” Baba Ifalade told us that some months ago. The sum total of your ancestors… standing on the Galveston Beach I was reminded of Baba’s words. I suspect that honoring the ancestors–all of them, not just some of them–means at least three things.

First, it means recognizing that they have given us things for which we should be grateful. We are charged to pass these things on. You might have your own list. I invite you to consider it for a moment. For me, they include my love of art, my passion for justice, and propensity for cooking.

Some of my ancestors were part of the Amana Colonies, a Christian socialist community in Iowa. One of my great grandmothers worked in the communal kitchens. Her service was to feed, every day, dozens of other people. I know she loved to prepare food for the people of Amana because my grandmother Dolores took great pleasure in doing the same. And my mother got it from her. And I, in my turn, get satisfaction from fixing for food communities I care about. I even use some of their recipes when I do, if you have had First Unitarian Universalist’s holiday meals the last couple of years you may be familiar with their peanut brittle.

Think for a moment about what you have been given and what you are charged to pass on.

“The Ancestors,” Jackie Willis writes:

are having a summit …

Tomorrow they’re having a banquet
of possets and pears.
They sit on the table …

Second, honoring the ancestors means working to heal what has been broken. We are the children of all Being. We are all related. We each a thing of star dust and a member of the great family of all souls. Some of my ancestors did not act in accord with this reality. Some of them were undoubtedly wounded by others who refused to honor it. I suspect that the same is true for you.

We honor all of our ancestors–our human and our non-human ancestors, our ancestor the Earth, the water, and the soil–by trying to bind up what has been broken. We honor them by trying to leave a more beautiful world behind. We honor them by recognizing the ways in which we have benefited from the violence of the past–whether I like it or not I am a beneficiary of the systems of white supremacy that my ancestors like Buffalo Bill Cody worked to create–and then we work heal the ongoing scars of that violence.

Think for a moment about what has been broken and the work you can do to bring healing and more beauty into the world. What has been broken might be the ways in which you have benefited from or been impacted by violent systems like white supremacy. Or it might be traumas sitting within your family. Whatever it is, we honor the sum of our ancestors, the sum of all being, by struggling to pass on the best of ourselves, and not the worst, to those who will come next.

When they speak
it’s with the yellow eyes
of a fox and clicks of an orca.

Third, we honor the ancestors by recognizing that someday we, too, will join them. That day might arrive soon. Or it might be distant. But it will arrive for each of us. At some time in the future, we will all be ancestors.

This is even true for those of us who do not have children. Human society is collective effort. Everyone who is here, brief or long, leaves their imprint on all around us.

Years ago, I asked Federico Arcos, who I have told some of you about in the past, whether or not he believed in immortality. Federico, you might remember, was a lifelong union member and community organizer. He was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who had fought against fascists in the 1930s.

He was something of an atheist and so my question should have seemed odd. But he had a ready reply. Immortality, he told me, exists in the society we create together. We were driving in a car and so he pointed to the road in front of us. “This highway,” he said, “offers a kind of immortality to the workers who constructed it. It is their enduring gift to world and the people who will come after them. The same is true of the organizations that we create that improve the lot of working people or the stories we share or the love we give each other. These things endure, or the imprints of them endure, long after each of us is gone.”

We are the descendants of our ancestors. Some day we will be ancestors. Each of us is confronted with the question of what we shall leave behind.

One of the reasons we have a Unitarian Universalist community like this one is to help us answer that question. We consider in the sanctuary, in our religious education classes, and in our numerous adult programs. Over the next couple of weeks, you are invited to partially answer it by participating in our UU the Vote efforts. Like most of you, I want to leave a more democratic society behind for those who will come next. Democracy is under the threat.

As a religious community we have committed to doing something about that threat by getting out the vote and increasing voter participation. We have set the aspirational goal of 100% voter participation in our congregation. And we have adopted Precinct 20, which is a nearby part of Third Ward, with the goal of increasing voter turnout by 10% within it.

I hope that many of you will join me and the congregation in these efforts. I know that quite a few of you already have–with more than 50 of you signing up to register people to vote, our collective effort to send out over 4,000 postcards to low propensity voters, and a dozen of you joining with me to do block walking yesterday. There are more opportunities to engage. You can phonebank. You can block walk after next Sunday’s service or again on the 8th.

We are the descendants of our ancestors. Some day we will be ancestors. Each of us is confronted with the question of what we shall leave behind. What is it that each of us will be leaving behind? A more democratic society? Something else?

In the hopes that we leave behind a more beautiful world, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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